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This story was updated at 12:23 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, with more information.

Citing health and safety concerns, organizers on Wednesday announced that contemporary Christian music festival Jfest, originally scheduled for May, will not be happening at the Tennessee Riverpark on Aug. 1.

Just hours after the Jfest cancellation was announced on presenting radio station J103's Facebook page, the Hamilton County Commission voted to approve Friends of the Festival — an events production organization that also produces the Riverbend Festival — holding the Chattanooga Unite Summer Music Series at the Riverpark on July 11, 18, 25, Aug. 8, 15 and 22.

This is a new location for Chattanooga Unite, which had been known as Riverfront Nights for nearly a decade and was rebranded last month. It had been held at Ross's Landing, but Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced over the weekend that events drawing more than 50 people could not be held on city property as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Friends of the Festival's executive director, Mickey McCamish, had said earlier that he believes the community needs such an event to "heal and help get back to normalcy" during the pandemic, and county commissioners and county Mayor Jim Coppinger agreed.

Coppinger, who joined the Youtube commission teleconference, said he believes the event brings the community back a little closer to normal and said he hoped that people would willingly follow the safety guidelines.

"We are not trying to be heavy-handed, and I think the overwhelming majority will do the right thing," he said.

McCamish told the commission during Wednesday's meeting that Friends of the Festival will use a private security company during the events and that patrons will be informed as soon as they get to the parking lot that safety guidelines, including masks where appropriate, will be strictly enforced and that anyone unwilling to follow them will be escorted out.

Jfest organizer Ted Gocke said that board members of Partners for Christian Media, which operates FM station J103 and online station Jradio, as well as Come on Let's Go, a video streaming service, looked at three main reasons for canceling the 22-year-old festival.

Those reasons are the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the region, Tennnessee Gov. Bill Lee's extended state of emergency and the Hamilton County Health Department's mandate that people wear masks in public.

"Any one of the three was reason enough," he said.

The social media announcement, which was posted two days earlier than organizers had hoped to because one of the bands on the lineup leaked it to their fans, reads:

"Hey J103 family, after much prayer and heavy consideration, we feel it is in the best interest of the community at large to cancel this year's Jfest. Any tickets purchased for Jfest 2020 will be honored for Jfest 2021 or can be used as a tax-deductible donation to J103 and Partners for Christian Media. We will provide more details on these processes very soon."

Gocke said he hopes to keep the same lineup for 2021 and that tickets bought this year will be honored next year. Organizers are discussing a refund plan. It is a ticketed event which drew around 9,500 people in 2019 and Gocke said that while sales had been good, especially prior to the pandemic, they had slowed quite a bit.

He said organizers also noted that Jfest is an all-day event that features national touring acts performing from 11:30 a.m. to about 11 p.m.

"We just couldn't see asking people to sit out in the hot August sun wearing a mask for that long," he said.

"Public safety is the No. 1 priority, and while there are some out there who say this is all bunk, there are others who say it's very real, so for health reasons, we just couldn't put on an event this big."

Chattanooga Unite will feature primarily three local or regional acts, as well as food vendors and local non-profits during each of the six Saturdays it is held. The event is free, and organizers say they expect crowds of around 1,500 people and that the size of the park allows for plenty of social distancing space.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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